I love slow films for the very good reason that they stay with you, whether they’re films about happy chaps (which is hardly ever the case) or whether they’re brutal encounters with disturbing histories. The fact that they are slow gives your brain ample opportunities to record the film in detail. If a film is, on top of that, also beautifully shot, it leaves an even stronger impression. This is the case with Félix Dufour-Laperrière’s beautiful Transatlantique (2014).
What would you expect from a film which is set exclusively on a big ship, without dialogue or music? Possibly not much, but Transatlantique is a compelling piece precisely because it is beautifully shot and because it engages the viewer. Dufour-Laperrière does not show everything that happens on the ship. He uses fascinating shadow plays, originating from the changing light on the ship, in order to give us a sense of what the ship crew is busying themselves with. What are they really doing?
There is a superb scene which made my heart melt. I would say that my eyes melted, but this sounds wrong, even though it would be more appropriate. A seemingly high angle shot records a shadow play of something. Of people, no doubt. But what are they doing? I saw two dots, this was all. I heard sounds of a football being kicked around. The scene was veiled in complete darkness from time to time whenever the sun disappeared. Then the two dots re-appeared; a mesmerising light-shadow play, which I could have watched for hours. It turned out that the crew played cricket. It was the scene which showed me most just how engaging this film is, even though I thought that I would merely float on the big sea with the crew for about an hour. This isn’t the case at all. Dufour-Laperrière has created a thoroughly engaging piece with Transatlantique.
There is another vital aspect which helps with viewer engagement. This is the issue of sound. Slow films in general put emphasis on sound, mainly ambient sound. The subtraction of dialogue allows natural sounds to come to the fore. That so many slow films are set in nature speaks for itself; it is a reminder of what else is out there apart from the spoken word. If we were to shut our mouths for a while, we would hear the birds…or the famous wind in the trees (apart from seeing it!). Dufour-Laperrière, though, plays with our expectations. As he does so with the visuals, some of which are almost impossible to decipher (and I suggest this is what makes them so beautiful and intriguing), he also frustrates us by not giving us the peaceful and meditative sound of the sea. This is perhaps one of the expectation you have of the film; hearing the sea. Transatlantique may disappoint you in that case.
The almost complete absence of the sound of the sea was compelling. You see the sea, but you don’t hear it. Dufour-Laperrière deafens us in this regard. But it is also a reminder that nature is not one of the actors in the film, as is the case, for instance, in Lav Diaz’s films. The protagonist is the ship, not even so much the crew. I had the feeling that Transatlantique was a film about a ship. It reminded me of a big whale, almost life- and motionless, and yet so fascinating; just like the whale in Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies. Even though there are obvious narrative strands constructed around the characters, for me Werckmeister was about the whale first of all, and then about the characters. The former influenced the latter. This is where I would position Transatlantique as well, though, to be fair, it is more difficult to clearly establish here who’s the main protagonist. Transatlantique is not a narrative film as such. It is more an observation, which echoed the approach Lisandro Alonso took in his first films.
Transatlantique is a fascinating visual and auditory piece, which keeps you engaged throughout it’s almost 80 minutes running time. Just the cinematography alone allows me to position the film in the top of the most beautifully shot slow films. It’s one of those films that made me want to pick up a camera again (and I will eventually!).